A good word
I went into La Gioia deli in Schenectady the other day to buy lunch, and the Tall Guy behind the counter greeted me by asking, “What’s the good word?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Come on,” the Tall Guy said. “Give me a word — a good word.”
Oh, a good word! Well, sure. I’ve always got one or two of those up my sleeve.
“Limosis,” I said, without hesitation.
“What’s limosis?” the Tall Guy asked.
“An urgent desire to eat chalk,” I said.
“Got any more?” the Tall Guy asked.
“Defenestration,” I said.
“Don’t know it,” the Tall Guy said. “What does it mean?”
“To throw something or someone out a window,” I said.
“Nice,” the Tall Guy said. “I’ve got a few good words myself. Like pentasyllabic.”
“What’s pentasyllabic?” I asked.
“Having or consisting of five syllables,” the Tall Guy answered. “And it’s a five syllable word. Cool, huh?”
The Tall Guy then introduced me to a doozy of a word: floccinaucinihilipilification. I’d never heard this word before, and it almost left me speechless. “Whoa,” I said. The Tall Guy then blew my mind by providing a definition; much to my amazement, floccinaucinihilipilification is a useful word, meaning the act of deeming something worthless. I deem things worthless all the time!
My wordplay with the Tall Guy was one of the highlights of a rather dry and humorless week, perhaps because it was so unexpected. I have a quirky sense of humor, and unusual words amuse me, particularly if they’re fun to say and have interesting definitions.
Indeed, the Tall Guy’s fascination with vocabulary brought back memories of middle school and high school, when my friends and I amused ourselves with word games and other demonstrations of verbal wit.
We particularly enjoyed Balderdash, a board game in which players create bogus definitions for a real, albeit weird, word, such as limosis; these bogus definitions are then read aloud, along with the real definition, and the players attempt to guess which definition is real. My friends and I had so much fun crafting bogus definitions that we eventually stopped trying to guess which definitions were real, and simply picked the definition we considered most entertaining.
Even in college, there was time for meaningless wordplay.
My housemates and I subscribed to The New York Times, and made a point of doing — or attempting to do — the crossword puzzles. Whenever we completed a Sunday puzzle, we hung it on the refrigerator. We considered ourselves fans of Will Shortz, the Times’ crossword puzzle editor. (I just glanced at the Wikipedia entry on Shortz, and learned that he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in enigmatology — the study of puzzles. Enigmatology seems like a word the Tall Guy might appreciate.)
How my housemates and I managed to find time to do the Times crossword when we were busy trying to finish our degrees remains an eternal source of mystery to me. Maybe we were just more carefree then. What I do know is that adults rarely take the time to engage in the sort of witty, word-oriented banter that my friends and I engaged in when we were younger. Most communication takes the form of tersely written e-mails, Facebook posts or, worst of all, text messages.
And because I’m a reporter, I’m inundated with bland, often poorly written press releases and statements. By the end of last week, I’d had my fill of this garbage. (And most of it is garbage.) I needed to read something delightful and get all of those bland, poorly written press releases and statements out of my head. Thankfully, my editor printed out a poem for me. Titled “Zimska Pesma,” it was entirely in Croatian. But I didn’t care. It sounded nice.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that most of my friends like to read and are decent writers. Even the ones that claim to be lousy writers are capable of putting together thoughtful and entertaining letters and e-mails, and enjoy playing games like Balderdash and doing the crossword puzzle in a big noisy group. (They do usually draw the line at puns, however.)
I can’t help but think that if more people loved words, the world would be a better place. Or at least a place with better writing and conversation, and more poetry to it.
Fortunately, most of the people who work at the Gazette find words pretty interesting.
Take the guy who sits next to me at work.
He really appreciates words, particularly the words hooliganism and muffaletta.
To keep him happy, I try to use both as much as possible.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at email@example.com.